Selling Dreams in Dundee

Tim Walker, Lily Cole & Giant Camera, Italian Vogue, 2005 © Tim Walker / Victoria and Albert Museum, London

When thinking about fashion, and fashion photography, Dundee is not necessarily the first place that comes to mind. The Victoria & Albert museum, who are to open a sister site in Dundee in the coming years, is set to change that. ‘Selling Dreams: One Hundred Years of Fashion Photography’ is the second collaboration between Dundee’s McManus gallery and the V&A (the first being a Jubilee exhibition of Cecil Beaton’s portraits of the Queen), featuring famous works by giants such as Horst P. Horst, David Bailey and Tim Walker, as well as lesser-known and unpublished pieces.

The title of the exhibition, ‘Selling Dreams’, is, in my mind, exactly what fashion photography is about: the clashing together of aspirational dreams and commercial demands. Whilst working at Vogue magazine, photographer Irving Penn once said that the role of the fashion photographer was “selling dreams, not clothes”; the exhibition aims to explore how photographers such as Penn have constantly pushed boundaries and experimented with their creativity, heightening tension between them and the business-oriented editors and designers they work for.

The layout of the exhibition is roughly chronological: the gallery is divided into periods of 10 or 20 years, which each period focusing on a particular issue or aesthetic ideal. The viewer is taken from the beginnings of fashion photography in the early twentieth century right up to contemporary works, charting not only developments in photography as a medium – from cumbersome studio cameras, to handheld, to digital – but also changes in aesthetic and beauty ideals. These changes appear almost cyclical, from the posed society girls of the 30s and 40s to the 60s’ more natural and journalistic approach to today’s semi-posed dream sequences and fantasy narratives.

Almost every photograph in the exhibition either featured in or was originally shot for Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar. Variety would have been more informative, particularly since the literature accompanying the exhibition touched on the influential work of magazines such as The Face and i-D. I noticed one piece of street style photographry in the mix – of course it was by Scott Schuman, aka The Sartorialist – but was disappointed to find no mention of The New York Times’ Bill Cunningham, who I, as well as Schuman himself, consider to be the original street style photographer. In fact it was disappointing not to see more of the art of street style as a whole; this particular hybrid of fashion photography is exerting an incredible amount of influence over both editorial and promotional works at the moment.

Of course, with limited gallery space and such vast archives at the V&A, there were always going to be gaps in this exhibition. It was interesting to see how there were very few instantly recognisable faces, supermodels such as Kate Moss, in the exhibition; I liked how this made the focus the talent and artistic skill of the photographers, rather than the fame of the subjects. On the whole, ‘Selling Dreams’ is a good introduction to the history of fashion photography for those interested in the field, and the accompanying literature does a great job of explaining the background and techniques of various photographers.

The exhibition is running from 28th September until 6th January 2013.

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